Days after a memo detailing failures to keep children safe became public, two Mecklenburg County commissioners said they want to examine oversight of the trouble-plagued Department of Social Services.
Commissioners George Dunlap and Karen Bentley recently sent officials emails asking the board to discuss how it should monitor the agency.
The emails followed Observer reports last week on a February 2011 state review that cited glaring errors and deficiencies by the unit that is supposed to protect abused and neglected children. The state review singled out examples of substandard work, including one case in which a social worker did not follow up with medical providers on behalf of a child that suffered second-degree burns.
Some commissioners said they were not aware of the state review until last week when they were contacted by an Observer reporter. Previously, commissioners did not learn about a major management shakeup in DSS until months later.
Mecklenburg has a unique system in which the Board of Commissioners has authority over DSS. They allow County Manager Harry Jones to supervise the agency director and discipline employees.
In almost every other North Carolina county, a separate board that meets regularly sets policy and oversees DSS.
Mecklenburg officials acknowledge they seldom meet specifically to address DSS issues.
Commissioners need to discuss whether we would want to change the current board practice of allowing the manger to continue to do his job, as outlined in previous board policy, or make a change and decide that there are certain things that must be brought to the boards attention, Dunlap wrote to his counterparts.
Bentley wrote, I think we need to gain clarity on the accountability structure as it relates to DSS to ensure that Mecklenburg County remains in compliance with the law and that the safety of our citizens remains top priority.
Bentley and Dunlap did not return calls seeking comment Monday.
Through a public records request, the Observer obtained a memo dated Feb. 14, 2012, written by former DSS Director Mary Wilson. She was fired in September.
Wilson wrote that Mecklenburg County had trouble meeting federal standards for protecting children and warned that the state could pay several million dollars in fines.
The state said last week it paid a penalty of roughly $1 million to the federal government for failures cited in a 2007 federal review. Mecklenburg did not have to pay a fine.
Over the weekend, Bentley sent commissioners an email saying she had spoken with county General Manager Michelle Lancaster-Sandlin.
Lancaster-Sandlin has promised to brief commissioners on the issue, Bentley wrote.
But county spokesman Danny Diehl said Monday that county staff told commissioners about state reviews of the DSS Youth and Family Services Division, which is responsible for abused and neglected children.
Diehl said he did not know of any additional planned briefings.
But Commissioner Bill James said he does not believe he was alerted to the state review.
In an email to county commissioners, James said he is concerned because continued problems at DSS could mean a hefty fine from the state.
It makes me wonder how many reports have been prepared by regulatory groups about DSS that we havent actually seen? James wrote.
Commissioner Dumont Clarke sent an email to Jones acknowledging commissioners have allocated less money for DSS than Jones recommended. The agency has a $160 million annual budget.
If we need to provide more money to DSS for (Youth and Family Services) to hire more case workers or take other steps they need to improve performance, please let us know as we begin planning for our budget next year, Clarke wrote.